Humor is a challenging thing to capture in words. How many times have you picked up a book, been promised a laugh by the reviews on the back cover, and been left with nothing more than lingering doubt over wether or not you’ve got a sense of humor? Worse still, humor often ages poorly. Aside from Jerome K. Jerome, the works of most late 19th century humorists are incomprehensible to modern people.
In the visual arts, the story is different. What we draw from an image or film is more instantaneous and universal compared with what we might draw from the written or spoken word. The juxtapositions tend to be more brash, and that all-important first impression tends to feel more timeless.
To Robert Doisneau, who started his career as an advertising and postcard photographer, imbuing his images with an initial “zing” seemed to come naturally. But look a little longer and we also see a deeply textured portrayal of all the emotion and feeling and depth of life itself.
Following the Second World War he created images that bridged the gaps of class and lifestyle, images that laid bare the universal realities of being alive in a world that’s as intensely serious as it is ridiculously silly.
Maurice Baquet, On Dirait du Veau
Has anyone ever truly realized the comedic potential of the cello? Doisneau produced a number of photographs of cellist Maurice Baquet and his cello throughout the 1950s. Baquet swam with his cello, forgot it on the train platform, and balanced it delicately while trying to clear snow from a car.
To my eye, none of these photos is greater than Baquet using his cello as a coatrack while he bathed in a stream. The cello case looks like a frumpy four foot tall man dressed badly in Baquet’s clothes, standing duck-footed as a supremely pleased Baquet dries himself in the background.
The photographer loved the appearance of people in every day situations. While today we are not likely to come face-to-face with our dinner, in the first half of the twentieth century butchers would often hang the heads of freshly butchered animals outside to show the meat was fresh.
The bone-white head at the right of the frame offsets the relative darkness of the rest of the scene. The skin tones of the heavily mustachioed man are even substantially darker than the freshly butchered animal, and gives the scene a very clear feeling of focus.
This clarity can be a real struggle for street photographers. Let’s be frank, getting up close and personal with your subject can be very intimidating. Perhaps the preference of earlier street photographers for longer lens than many of us prefer today aided in this clarity of purpose in their work. HCB famously preferred a 50mm lens, and for much of his work, Doisneau also appears to use longer lenses than street photographers typically prefer today.
La Dame Indignée , 1948
In a 1992 letter to Peter Hamilton, Doisneau wrote “In these ordinary surroundings which were my own I happened to glimpse some fragments of time in which the everyday world appeared freed from its heaviness. To show such moments would take a whole lifetime.” Of course, sometimes you need to make those moments happen. Stand inside a shop window where a lewd image is displayed, and someone is bound to react on the other side of the glass.
It is disingenuous to attribute to intent that which can be attributed to simple happenstance. Still, this is a wonderful example of the decisive moment. Fortunately for us, a quick Google search for “Doisneau, The Sidelong Glance” nets us most of the contact sheet, and shows the reactions of about a dozen people to a single bawdy image in a store window.
Resistance Fighter During the Liberation of Paris, 1944
Josef Koudelka has photographed just one active combat zone in his long career. In one sense, the same can be said of Doisneau. Doisneau was a soldier and photographer with the French Resistance during the Second World War. A soldier until 1940, he used his artistic abilities to forge passports and identification papers for the French resistance.
The bulk of Doisneau’s photographs of the resistance come from 1944, during the allied liberation of Paris. Compared to other photographers who have centered their careers on this sort of work, Doisneau’s catalog of wartime photos is relatively small, but what exists is excellent. Even with an overturned, burning car in the background, this particular image is just so calm. That is what is so striking about his images of the French Resistance. The calm within the horror.
The French seem to be a demure people even in the worst of conditions. These images of bizarrely placid fighters, or people pushing prams camouflaged with brush down the streets of Paris are a wonderfully composed and striking view of France rising from its darkest hour.
Accordion Girl, Early 1950s.
Douisneau worked with the pair of women in this photograph for a day in Paris in the early 1950s. I’ve seen this image identified as being from 1951, ’52, or ’53. The woman in the distance is a singer, and the nearer of the two is accordionist Pierrette d’Orient. Street photographers seem to love this image, though it is not a particularly spontaneous photo of organic action.
Despite that, it is extremely engrossing. Pierrette is out of focus, but clearly the subject. She completely dominates the image. Her dark eyes and apparent dissatisfaction with being photographed make for an incredibly immersive image. How often have we attempted this same shot, and received the same reaction from our subject, only to refrain from pressing the shutter?
In putting this piece on Doisneau together, I realized how challenging it was to pick my top five shots while avoiding five incredibly well known images. It’s like trying to pick your five favorite songs by Queen. No one is going to complain if you just play the hits.
Doisneau, for his part, stayed modest throughout his career. While his status as a giant of photography was cemented relatively early on, to the end he remained humble. His daugher acted as his agent for some years, and when she billed a beer company a 2,000 GBP daily rate for his work he regarded this as indecent. Doisneau saw himself simply as an artisan photographer, not a celebrity in his own right. To Doisneau, what was most important was to show “not life as it is, but life as I would like it to be.”
More of Doisneau’s work can be seen in books. Get them on Amazon.
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